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Capitol Comment 209 – Tales from the Crypt Part I: The Pork-Laden Omnibus Appropriations Bill of 1998

Who can forget the image of President Ronald Reagan hoisting a foot-high, pork-laden spending bill during his 1988 State of the Union Address and warning the then-Democratically-controlled Congress not to send him another such bill upon the threat of his veto.

A decade later, in 1998, the now Republican-controlled Congress has worked together with President Bill Clinton to produce a 40-pound, 16-inch high, 4,000-page, $520 billion “omnibus” spending bill, funding most of the major cabinet agencies for fiscal year 1999. While the bill sailed through Congress and onto the president’s desk for his signature, most lawmakers had no idea of what was actually contained in the bill. Had they known, perhaps they would not have been so cavalier with taxpayers’ money.

For example, the omnibus bill spends more than $21 billion of this year’s estimated $79 billion budget surplus on so-called “emergency” programs. In Washington, an “emergency program” is not the one-time response to an act of nature, say a flood, that most people think of when they hear the term. Rather, an “emergency program” is any program that Congress and the president decide to fund outside of the normal budget process and the statutory limits on discretionary spending.

One of the stranger “emergency” items is the $100 million given to the Architect of the Capitol to plan, design and construct a visitor’s center near the Capitol. Another odd “emergency” item is nearly $100 million in government payments and loans to “buy out” fishermen working in the Bering Sea. Even the $6 billion in “emergency” relief monies for farmers seems a bit excessive — $6 billion is enough money to outright buy six million acres of farm land. That’s equal to buying 4.5 farms in every county in the United States. This emergency farm relief also proved to be a convenient vehicle for resurrecting the subsidies to honey, wool, and mohair producers that Congress killed in 1996. This reconstituted program proves the old adage that the closest thing to immortality is a government program.

Yet the most self-indulgent “emergency” item has to be the provision to extend “the 1998-1999 duck hunting season in the State of Mississippi.” This little gem was tucked into a larger provision requiring military nurse corps officers to have bachelor’s degrees.

Lawmakers were particularly generous to international sporting events. For instance, the 1999 Women’s World Cup is getting $2 million from the State Department and another $475,000 from the General Services Administration (GSA); the Special Olympics is getting $1.25 million from the State Department and $1.9 million from the Department of Transportation (DOT); the 2002 Winter Olympics is also getting $1 million from DOT and $1.3 million from the National Forest Service; and the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships are getting $600,000 from the GSA.

As is typically the case, the most creative pork-barrel projects were funded within the Department of Agriculture’s budget. Lawmakers spent $500,000 for manure handling and disposal in Starkville, Miss., and another $500,000 for swine waste management in North Carolina. But we can’t overlook the $750,000 for grasshopper research in Alaska, $300,000 for honeybee research in Louisiana, $175,000 to research oil resources from desert plants in New Mexico, and $250,000 for floriculture research in Hawaii.

This year, however, lawmakers showed a particular fondness for fish farms. Despite the fact that the aquaculture industry earned more than $500 million in 1997, Congress spent more than $10 million on various aquaculture research projects. These include: $750,000 to the Fish Farming Experiment Laboratory in Stuttgart, Ark.; $1.1 million to the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, Miss.; and, $2.75 million for aquaculture research and marketing in West Virginia — the seafood capital of Appalachia!

But what would an omnibus spending bill be without the truly weird projects. Unfortunately, many of them are funded within the Department of Interior’s budget, which means there is less money for the “crown jewels” such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Take, for instance, the $500,000 in Alaska minerals for the “minerals at risk” program. (Apparently, Congress wasn’t satisfied with the 131 existing programs targeted at “at risk” youth.) Or, how about the $583,000 for the wild horse and burro program or the $1.4 million for the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. Then there are these: $1 million for rehabilitation of the U-505 submarine in Chicago; $300,000 for the National First Ladies Library; $67,000 for the New Orleans Jazz Commission; $48,000 for the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission; and $100,000 for the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area.

Until now, who would have guessed that we are suffering a national shortage of federal courthouses? That’s right. Congress approved more than $492 million to construct new government buildings, most of which are courthouses. Some of these new, gold-plated halls of justice include: $3.4 million for the U.S. Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark.; $84 million for the U.S. Courthouse in Denver; $86 million for a courthouse in Jacksonville, Fla.; and, $152.6 million for another in Brooklyn, New York.

Fortunately, not every item in the omnibus spending bill costs taxpayers money. Lawmakers were in full agreement to rename the National Rice Germplasm Evaluation and Enhancement Center the “Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center” after the former senator from Arkansas. Maybe next year Congress will get around to canceling the center’s $1.4 million in federal funding.